This is it. This is the year.
My four-year-old is beside himself with excitement over Christmas this year. Full-on squealing glee. And do you know who is sharing in that overwhelming enthusiasm?
Growing up, times were tough. My parents owned a farm, and unless it's a corporate or large-scale farm, that's not a lucrative business. We had our necessities, but luxuries were a rarity. And that was okay. I had a great childhood, and I grew up to appreciate the simple pleasures in life. I understand that the truest riches are our families.
Despite not having the money to buy us the newest gaming system or a new wardrobe of labelled clothing, my parents still made Christmas magical for myself and my two siblings...
Christmas Eve. The three of us kids would go to bed at a fairly reasonable (though later than a school night) hour. But that didn't mean any sleeping was going to happen, not right away and not on my part anyway! I would lay awake and listen as my parents made trips up and down the hallway from their bedroom to the living room. I would crack open my door to hear the sound of wrapping paper, scotch tape, and their quiet laughter.
Eventually, they would make a final trip down the hallway to go to bed. I would wait, silent and still, to be sure that they had gone to bed and that neither of them was going to come back down the hallway to leave one last gift or to get a drink of water from the kitchen. When I was sure that it was "safe," I would sneak from my room and creep to the living room, flashlight in hand. There, under the Christmas tree, would be our gifts.
I have to admit that, especially as I got older, there was more than just excitement that led me to sneak out there...
I wanted to make sure that it would be a good Christmas.
Allow me to explain because I'm sure that sounds horrible. I know now as I knew then that presents are not the reason for the season and that it's not about how many gifts are under the tree. But I also wanted to make sure that each Christmas would feel magical. I wanted my brother and sister to be overwhelmed by all that they received, and I wanted to see the smile in my parents' eyes when they knew that they had succeeded in making the day magical. I guess, if anything, I was preparing myself. If I had ever gone out and seen very little under the tree, I was prepared to make it feel like we had still been given Solomon's riches.
I never had to worry about that. I don't know how they did it, but my parents always managed to fill the floor under that tree.
Actually, I do know how they did it. They didn't buy each other gifts. More on that later...
Anyway, I would sneak out and look at the piles of gifts. With a sigh of relief, I would return to my bedroom...generally to lay awake in anticipation, rarely falling asleep before 11:00.
By 3:00 in the morning, I was awake again, waiting for my parents' alarm clock to go off at 4:00. Because, yes, the cows get milked and fed on Christmas; there's no vacation for farmers. Finally, I'd hear that sharp beep, beep, beep from the end of the hall. I would listen as Mom got up first, making a trip to the bathroom before working her way down the hall. The front door would open and close. Then, a little while later (that always seemed like hours), Dad would finally get up and head down to the barn. As with the night before, I would wait, making sure that neither of them returned to the house for something they had forgotten.
By 4:30, I was in the living room. If my brother wasn't there already, he would soon join me. And sometimes my sister, when she'd wake up early. We'd turn on the lights of the Christmas tree and just stare.
The rule was that we could not touch any of the gifts under the tree. And believe me, we were good kids. We didn't touch a single one. And our parents, being sneaky, would always hide the tags so that we couldn't see which gifts were for whom. We would crank our necks in all directions, practically stand on our heads, but we wouldn't touch a single gift. Not that we thought we'd get into trouble...not because we feared Christmas would be cancelled...
...but because that was a part of the tradition and the fun!
We were allowed to open our stockings before our parents came up from the barn, and we would often wait until all three of us kids were awake so we could open the stockings together. Then, one year, my sister didn't wake up until 8:30 (my Mom had to wake her up). After that, the first two up would open their stockings together. Anyway, as we got older, there would often be one gift set aside with the stockings with a note that we could open that one early. It was usually a new card or board game, and my siblings and I would pass the time playing the game until our parents came up from the barn.
That generally happened between 7:00 and 7:30. We would be at the front window, waiting and watching, and as soon as they rounded the side of the barn, the squeals of "They're coming! They're coming!" would start. For some reason, we would arrange ourselves on the floor facing the door (like we were being posed for a Sears portrait) so that we could shout "Merry Christmas!" as our parents came in the front door.
The first order of business for our parents would be to change out of their barn clothes and into something cleaner and more comfortable. That always felt like it took forever! Finally, they would rejoin us in the living room where Dad would state with his characteristic smirk, "Guess I'll eat some breakfast and take a nap before we open presents." The three of us would scream, "No!!!" and he'd laugh that wonderful chuckle that I hear even now as I type this.
Then, the opening of gifts would commence. We would make Mom and Dad open their stockings first. Often, the contents of those stockings was all that they would get for each other, so we loved to see the ways that they'd surprise each other on a small scale. (My husband and I do the same; we have all we need, so why not focus on the little guy?)
Then, it was time for the gifts under the tree. Dad would hand out the gifts at Mom's direction ("Start with that one. No, that other one has to be first..."), and he would only hand out one gift at a time. I love that they did that. No wild, pell-mell tearing into gifts with the unwrapping concluding in five minutes. No, we took the entire morning. We got to see and appreciate both the gift and the reaction. We got to share Christmas with each other. As I said, I love that they did that.
Now, my Dad has a bit of a notorious reputation when it comes to Christmas. He didn't do it every year, but once in a while he would sneak out and buy gifts that Mom knew nothing about. Many times, those gifts were for my Mom. One year, with the three of us kids being in on the surprise, he handed her a large wrapped gift that seemed shaped like a mailbox. Puzzled, Mom opened it to find another wrapped box. And another wrapped box. Several wrapped boxes (and delightful giggles from her children) later, Mom unwrapped the small, velvety box containing a new emerald ring. Her tears and dad's laugh (his eyes were glistening, too) still ring out in my memory.
Probably the Christmas that stands out the most is the one that Dad really snuck out and surprised us all. Looking back, I'm wondering if that was a year when scraping together the money for Christmas seemed a little more difficult, if Dad wanted to provide a little extra magic for that reason...
We had finished unwrapping our gifts and were still basking in that euphoria, when Dad said that there were some gifts that were missing. Mom looked at him with confusion all over her face. She kept good track of gifts and knew exactly what everyone was getting; what was he talking about?
He pushed a gift over to my sister. With delight, she unwrapped this awesome '57 Chevy for her Barbies to cruise around in. A big box was slid over to my brother who screamed and jumped around when he got an immense blimp for his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Then, it was my turn. Somewhat sheepishly, Dad handed me my package. It was a brown paper bag. Over the top of it was some crumpled red tissue paper taped into place. In black marker, he had written "It's not the package but what's inside that counts." Leary, I opened the rag-tag gift...and burst into tears.
Now, this may seem silly to you, and I am okay with that. For months, months, I had been coveting a large, stuffed orangutan from one of the local department stores. It was ridiculously overpriced, so I had no hopes of getting it, but I still went to that section of the store and hugged those stuffed apes every time we went there. Even at 16-years-old, I wanted that stuffed animal.
And that stuffed orangutan was staring up at me from the inside of that brown paper bag.
Now that I have become a parent, and especially this year, I understand how much it means to be able to provide magic to your child. We all know, especially as tragic events unfold on the news, that there isn't much magic in the world sometimes. Christmas morning is one of those few occasions when we can try to shut out that outside world and just wrap ourselves in love and wonder.
In that moment, hugging that giant stuffed animal, I forgot that we didn't have much money, that times were tight. In that moment, we were rich in all the best of ways.
And so, I want my son to experience those same feelings.
He has lately fallen in love with the movie Toy Story. Actually, the entire trilogy. And let me tell you, so have I. All those feelings that my toys were real come back to me when I watch the movies with him.
In asking him what he wanted Santa to bring him this year, my little guy informed us that he wanted all of Woody's friends, and then he proceeded to list them off, keeping track on his little fingers: "I need Jessie and Bullseye...and Mr. Potato Head...Oh, and Mrs. Potato Head because they love each other and have to be together..."
I wrote out his requests for Santa, and later in the day, I began to search through Amazon.com for his requests.
The third movie came out two years ago, and while all three of them are still wildly popular, not all of the toys are readily available. And if they are, they are wildly marked up by private sellers. Great. The piggie bank, Ham, was so marked up and unavailable that I knew I wouldn't be able to add that to his collection.
Then, I remembered. Years ago, my son had been given a little toy piggie bank. It was pink; it was a pig; it was perfect. I reminded him of this bank and said that he could use that for Ham. Truthfully, I expected him to balk at the idea. It wasn't the real Ham, after all, and my son can be very specific and obstinate in how his little world works.
To my surprise, he said, "Yes, Mommy! That's a good idea!"
To the warming of my heart, he said, "Now Santa doesn't have to bring me this. He can get Ham for another little boy who doesn't have any toys."
And he did that for several of the toys that we found "duplicates" for amongst the toys in his toy box. And while searching for those duplicates, he pulled out other toys that he can donate to "those little boys without any toys." And he helped me pick out toys for a little boy living in a local homeless shelter because "he doesn't have a house and Santa can't find him."
Presents aren't everything. They have only a small bearing on the true meaning of Christmas. But in his own way, he's starting to understand the giving aspect of the season. He's starting to learn compassion.
And he's definitely experiencing wonder, a promise that I made to myself when I became a mother.
This year, when he wakes up on Christmas morning, he's going to feel that same sense of wonder that I had as a child. He's going to be thrilled that Santa fulfilled his list. He's going to be surprised that even Mommy and Daddy bought him some presents. And he is going to know...because his father and I will tell him...how loved and blessed that he is.
Just as I was loved and blessed by my parents.